Michele Woodard, Long Island's first African-American woman state Supreme Court judge, is literally a candidate without a party.
With her term ending in December and the bicounty judicial conventions looming next month, she is uncertain about renomination, although she is the lone incumbent eligible to run this fall for Nassau's three state Supreme Court spots.
When first elected 14 years ago, Woodard was a member of the Liberal Party and won office with the help of a Democratic cross-endorsement in a presidential election year when Democrat Al Gore romped locally, although he lost nationally. However, Woodard's Liberal Party lost its statewide ballot line in 2002, when the minor party failed to muster 50,000 votes needed to keep its place on the ballot, and the minor party has never recovered.
Although Woodard said she changed her party registration to Democrat on May 2, the switch does not officially take effect until after Election Day in November.
While a trailblazer, Woodard, 59, of Westbury, admits she is anxious about her chances for renomination for a second term at the Democratic convention, but strongly believes she deserves another term.
"I am nervous but not for myself but for the people of the state of New York," she said, emphasizing the bench in Long Island still needs more diversity. Before winning as judge, she spent 12 years in the state attorney general's office and ran for judge as a Liberal five times until her 2000 election.
She says she has worked well with hundreds of attorneys during her tenure and has the bar association's imprimatur.
"I believe I can win" the election, said Woodard, saying she remains active in the community, speaking in schools, churches and inviting them to her courtroom, and personally thanking every juror who ever serves. She added she also has encouraged young people, some who have served as interns, including one who became a lawyer and now serves as her campaign manager.
Nassau Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs, reached upstate, said the choice on candidates will be made after the election of judicial delegates on Sept. 9. "It's important that we nominate a highly qualified individual and we certainly prefer to nominate someone from our own party though being part of a different party is no disqualifier."
However, some party officials privately said they are upset by Woodard's last-minute and still unofficial party switch, and her close ties to Liberal Party chair Jack Olchin, who publicly backed GOP County Executive Edward Mangano's election and has been on the GOP administration's payroll, does little to help her cause.
Several party sources say a leading contender for one of the three Supreme Court spots is two-term District Court Judge Sharon Gianelli of New Hyde Park, former counsel to the Nassau Legislature who is from the Caribbean. She also is married to Art Gianelli, former top fiscal deputy to then-County Executive Thomas Suozzi. Other Democratic contenders include County Court Judge James McCormack of Jericho, Family Court Administrative Judge Edward Dane of Woodbury, and Family Court Judge Stacy Fleisher Bennett of Glen Head, an acting state Supreme Court judge.
Olchin said he still is proud he helped engineer Woodard's original cross-endorsement with then-Nassau Democratic chairman Thomas DiNapoli, now state comptroller. Woodard's mentor said he couldn't assess her chances this year, but added, "I find it hard to believe the Democratic leadership would choose not to renominate the only African-American on the state Supreme Court."